Angelo Valdes claims he is not a basketball coach, but more of a "life coach."
But the director of HELPS Ministry in St. Charles knows enough about basketball and life to realize how the game can help young people who have faced struggles and need a positive focus.
When Valdes sees teens and young men standing around smoking cigarettes on the streets, he figures there must be something more productive for them.
"I ask those boys, 'how would you like to play basketball?'" said Valdes, whose ministry helps young people steer away from the clutches of past drug or alcohol addictions or the lure of new ones.
And over the course of the past several months, enough boys showed an interest in the ministry and in playing basketball to create a team.
The Mavericks is a group of about 20 players ages 14 to 23 who practice twice a week to challenge other area teams or play pickup games at the ministry community center, 6N571 Tuscola Ave., St. Charles Township.
"It really sunk in for the kids when I got them uniforms from PK Specialties in St. Charles," said Valdes, who can relate to troubled youths and young adults, since overcoming his own addiction demons nearly 20 years ago.
Valdes worked for the Salvation Army site in the Valley View area 17 years ago at the same Tuscola Avenue location, operating outreach activities out of the site's gymnasium. When the Salvation Army built a new facility on Seventh Avenue in St. Charles, the Valley View site was shut down.
When HELPS or Help, Encouragement, Love and Prayer for Salvation ministry, serving the region for 12 years, purchased the former Salvation Army property in 2008 and converted it into the ministry site and community center, Valdes was back in business as pastor of the chapel and overseer of ministry programs at the community center.
"It means I am doing the same thing again with the gym," Valdes said.
That was good news for young men like 18-year-old Andrew Horstead of Aurora, who previously played basketball at St. Charles East.
"On this team, the players have control and we can make our own plays." Horstead said. "Coach Valdes works with us to make us a better team."
It's obvious that the role Valdes plays in making it all work is not lost upon his players.
"Angelo is a good guy, and any time we do a good job, he does great things for us, like taking us to Taco Bell," 15-year-old Jamie Hernandez of Chicago said. "The guy is a good man."
Hernandez said he personally wasn't very good at basketball, but Valdes encouraged him to keep trying.
"I am seeing myself get better, and it's the best feeling," said Hernandez, who lives with the Valdes family.
Alex Zermeno of Elgin, a 26-year-old assistant coach for the team, volunteers for the ministry, after living at a HELPS ministry shelter in Elgin eight years ago.
"I was struggling on the streets, and I want to give back to a place that helped me when I was having trouble," Zermeno said.
"The basketball team is a good thing," Zermeno added. "We have a lot of kids showing up to play, and we give them all a chance."
The players have been practicing since the winter of 2011, and Valdes has watched a group of young men with different backgrounds learn how to work together.
"Some of the kids had past troubles, some are homeless, some had no previous troubles but just liked what they saw and heard about the basketball team," Valdes said of the backgrounds of his players.
"It is a good, positive experience for these boys and it keeps them out of trouble," Valdes added.
The basketball team has also proven to be a true family affair, as Valdes' 14-year-old son, Joshua, recently joined the team.
"I have been interested in playing for a long time and have wanted to be on a team," the young Valdes said. "It is so cool to get into something like this."
It was especially cool when the team won its first game against a team from Carpentersville that had already beaten the Mavericks a few times.
"We get grades from my dad for how we play in the games," Joshua Valdes said. "And when we won that game against a team from Carpentersville, we got an A that day."
The players were recently excited for a teammate who went beyond getting an A for his effort when they learned 20-year-old Corey Campbell had secured an offer to try out for a professional contract in a European league, Valdes said.
"This has been a lifelong dream for Corey, so we're all praying for him to succeed," he added.
That good fortune illustrates that Valdes' simple, but powerful mantra for his players, or others seeking help or a spiritual lift from the ministry, can eventually pay off.
"I am willing to invest in you, if you keep investing in doing the right things in your life," Valdes said.